Many big issues are at their heart debates between optimists and pessimists – with some pretentious self-declared realists thrown into the mix. This is also true about climate change.
Will we develop carbon-neutral technologies? Or can we capture the carbon dioxide and store it? Where? How will we finance that? Can we move cities threatened by rising sea levels and increased storms? Can wind and solar energy produce enough energy? Won’t we run out of oil and coal anyway? Wouldn’t we save a lot of emissions if we worked fewer days per week?
I actually think those questions are less relevant than they seem. The future of our planet will not depend on technology, it will depend on human behavior.
Will we come to our senses and consume and produce less? Will we help those displaced by floods and droughts? Will we become more defensive and aggressive at the same time? Or will be become more compassionate and cooperative? Will the rich (basically anyone reading this blog) care for the poor or retire to some refuge?
I have been wondering about this in recent years, as the planet is heating up as fast as never before. Admittedly, I have become ever more skeptical as the population continues to increase and people continue to fly and drive and eat steaks. There are reasons for optimism in between, but they are quickly drowned out by the sounds of a billion exhaust pipes.
And then I came across a book, a wonderful book about a terrible event. Now, I think I know how it will end. I learned it from Svetlana Alexievich’s account of the Chernobyl disaster. Everything about that event is shocking, but nothing more so than the carefree attitude and willful ignorance of people, which, I am afraid, is not limited to those living around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Everything went its normal course: plowing, sowing, harvesting. Something unimaginable had happened, but people lived the way they had always lived.
This was not because people didn’t know about radioactivity. Rather, the problem was so enormous that one had to ignore it to survive mentally. Even if it meant surviving for only a few short years.
That year, our neighbors got a new floor, made of local wood. It was measured, and the nuclear radiation was a hundred times above the limit. Nobody ever tore the flooring out, they are still living with it, thinking: It’s going to be alright somehow, things always work out.
Some will now object that this took place in the Soviet Union and that a market economy provides totally different incentives for people to behave smarter. But no! It was exactly materialistic motivation which let people forget the threat to their health and their families. Someone from the Chernobyl Museum explains:
There was a moment when there was the threat of a thermonuclear explosion, and the heavy water had to be released from the reactor, or it would have crashed into it. Heavy water is a direct component of the nuclear fuel. Can you imagine that? The task was: Who will dive into the heavy water and open the slider of the release valve? Promises were made: a car, an apartment, a dacha and financial security for the family until life’s end. Volunteers were sought. And they volunteered! The boys were diving, diving several times, they opened the slider, and the squad got 7000 rubles for it. …
The men are all dead by now.
Ok, you may dismiss this as juvenile heroics. But even long after the catastrophe, people were guided by money:
The soil had different levels of contamination, on the same collective farm there were “clean” and “dirty” fields. Those working on the “dirty” fields received more money, and everyone wanted to go there. Nobody wanted to work on the “clean” ones anymore.
When the evacuation of a village was announced a week in advance, people “used” the time to bale hay, to cut grass and to harvest vegetables.
And then someone says we shouldn’t eat the cucumbers and tomatoes. What is that supposed to mean? They taste like always. And people eat them, and the stomach doesn’t hurt.
It was not for the absence of warning voices. A teacher tells of an evening among parents, where a doctor asks the other parents to send their children to relatives. Far away from Chernobyl.
I believe everyone there felt the same: She was causing needless anxiety. …
Oh, how we hated her back then! She had ruined our evening.
And this is how people will continue to behave. They will continue to buy and to produce, to work and to reproduce. They will close the eyes to anything complicated and seek salvation in shallow materialism. Even the last human being will still be proud about all the property he will have snatched up.
That’s how trite the end will be.
Because that’s how stupid we are.
And that, to return to the opening question, is my optimistic scenario.